The Catholic Thing
This Most Silent Day Print E-mail
By Fr. Richard John Neuhaus   
Saturday, 19 April 2014

We must not turn away from what we have done to God, lest we be found to have turned away from what he has done for us. It is not easy to look, to really look and see. John Donne, that great spiritual master knew it well. “Good Friday, 1613: Riding Westward” bears close and careful reading: 

Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die ?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul’s, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg’d and torn?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God’s partner here, and furnish’d thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom’d us?

The half furnished by Mary was his humanity. Through Mary he received his humanity, and in receiving his humanity received humanity itself. Which is to say, through Mary he received us. In response to the angel’s strange announcement, Mary said yes. But only God knew that it would end up here at Golgotha, that it had to end up here. For here, in darkness and in death, were to be found the prodigal children who had said no, the prodigal children whom Jesus came to take home to the Father.

The liturgy of Good Friday is coming to an end now. A final prayer replaces the usual benediction:

Lord, send down your abundant blessing upon your people who have devoutly recalled the death of your Son in the sure hope of the resurrection. Grant them pardon; bring them comfort. May their faith grow’ stronger and their eternal salvation be assured. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Let all the people say Amen.

The Harrowing, 12th-century fresco (Kurbinovo, Macedonia)

The church is dark now. The altar is stripped and bare. Some are getting up and leaving in silence. Others remain kneeling, looking into the darkness. Holy Saturday is ahead, the most quiet day of the year. The silence of that silent night, holy night, the night when God was born was broken by the sounds of a baby, a mother’s words of comfort and angels in concert.

Holy Saturday, by contrast, is the sound of  perfect silence. Yesterday’s mockery, the good thief’s prayer, the cry of dereliction – all that is past now. Mary has dried her tears, and the whole creation is still, waiting for what will happen next.

Some say that on Holy Saturday Jesus went to hell in triumph, to free the souls long imprisoned there. Others say he descended into a death deeper than death, to embrace in his love even the damned. We do not know. Scripture, tradition and pious writings provide hints and speculations, but about this most silent day it is perhaps best to observe the silence. One day I expect he will tell us all about it. When we are able to understand what we cannot now even understand why we cannot understand.

Meanwhile, if we keep very still, there steals upon the silence a song of Easter that was always there. On the long mourners’ bench of the eternal pity, we raise our heads, blink away our tears and exchange looks that dare to question, “Could it be?” But of course. That is what it was about. That is what it is all about. O felix culpa! O happy fault, 0 necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!

To prodigal children lost in a distant land, to disciples who forsook him and fled, to a thief who believed or maybe took pity and pretended to believe, to those who did not know that what they did they did to God, to the whole bedraggled company of humankind he had abandoned heaven to join, he says: “Come. Everything is ready now. In your fears and your  laughter, in your friendships and farewells, in your loves and losses, in what you have been able to do and in what you know you will never get done, come, follow me. We are going home to the waiting Father.”


Fr. Richard John Neuhaus
was one of America’s leading Catholic writers and thinkers. He was the founder of First Things magazine and the author of numerous books, including
The Naked Public Square and Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus on the Cross.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Manfred, April 19, 2014
" a thief who believed or maybe took piry and pretended to believe..." We have to be very careful of this last paragraph. If Fr. Neuhaus is referring to St. Dismas, the Good Thief who was crucified with Christ, we can be assured that he is a saint because Christ/God said so: "This day you will be with me in Paradise." Christ/God could never be fooled (as we will all learn very graphically when we are judged by Him). There is a scent of universal salvation here which should put us on guard.
written by Chris in Maryland, April 19, 2014
Amen. Alleluia.
written by schm0e, April 19, 2014
It seems that The Thief got it.

Must be something about being nailed onto a cross waiting to die next to Jesus that clarifies one's thinking.
written by GKC, April 19, 2014
Boy, RJN could write. Powerful.

And yes, we know the thief was saved. But he's not questioning that; rather, reflecting on his motives; a Pascal wager, if you will.
written by Jack,CT, April 19, 2014
Love the positive tone of the latest writers here"
They show a renewed spirit of love and what
I think so many of us felt this site truly is About!
Thanks Fr-

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